Sunday, November 26, 2023

On Exile. And Return

Israel/Palestine. In Diaspora. In Exile. Who has the Right of Return? I have thought about this for decades. I have very, very unconventional thoughts about both. Most of my Jewish and Christian friends and family are shocked – gob smacked - to learn about them. Hence, I have been reluctant to share them. Especially recently.

 My thoughts are very much informed by my 7 years’ experience of living in Israel (I am a citizen to this day and speak fluent, if rusty, Hebrew).  I am informed by observing the situation intimately both then and from afar since. I have visited periodically since I moved from there to London and eventually back to the U.S. My brother was an Israeli tank commander in both Lebanon and the West Bank. Many of my friends also served in the IDF. Several people I know, and love were killed or gravely injured (mentally and physically).

  My views are also informed by my family history, religiously speaking, both Christian and Jewish. My family was heavily impacted by the Holocaust. My father and grandmother were the only survivors of their family in Southwest Poland.  

 It may surprise you to know that my thoughts do not flow only from my personal experience.

 As an undergraduate, I studied history and concentrated my interests on the history of Europe from 1870 to World War II, including the interwar years.  I invested an extensive amount of time - academically as both an undergraduate and at law school - researching the European Holocaust and several the other genocidal events in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia (and the list goes on). I spent the better part of my law school career – to the extent possible - concentrating on Humanitarian Law and the Law of War, including war crimes prosecution and various conventions and treaties. I wrote and published a dissertation for the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda on the Hierarchy of International Laws. I worked on projects including a study  of the intersection (particularly the contradictions) of the new Afghani Constitution and the UN Convention (to which they are signatories). I closely followed the nascent International Criminal Court in the Hague (from which the U.S. withdrew under George W. Bush).  I lived in, or traveled to some 35 countries around the world. 

 As a person and a lawyer, I am deeply conscious of the role the law plays in maintaining a civil society. I am also acutely aware that many approach the issues of Israel from a religious, spiritual, and emotional place. I respect that. I am not immune.  I am also of the belief that ALL living beings are chosen by God. There is not ‘one’ Chosen People. ALL people are chosen by god.  In my belief system my god is a god of love.

 The Law of War, or International Humanitarian Law, is well established. The basic tenets were laid down centuries ago by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in the 3rd century. His is the first systematic exposition of the law of war. It was expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas – famous for his philosophical and theological proof of the existence of God in the 13th century. In his Summa Theologicae, Aquinas presents the general outline of what would become the traditional “Just War Theory.” Aquinas sets forth the basis for entering into a just war and once engaged, the kinds of activity that are permissible (for a Christian) in war. The two are known as Jus ad bellum and Jus in Bello. Jus ad Bellum - entering into war -is limited to self-defense against an attack or to avoid an imminent threat. Jus in Bello sets forth conduct that is forbidden in war. Jus in Bello states that the defense must be proportionate to the force brought against the defender. It proscribes “necessity” as the sole measure of the force that may be used as a defense. War must be entered into with specific intention. The intention must lead to greater peace and justice than existed prior to the outbreak of war.  Critical in the current discussion, force may not be used for revenge and civilians must be protected.

 These principles were later codified in law. Among others are Lincoln’s Civil War “Order 100” which itself is based on the then-contemporaneous “Lieber Code” which shortly thereafter forms the basis for the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

 One useful way to look at the situation in Israel- Palestine is take it out of this historic Jewish/Muslim/Christian context. I feel that one cannot discount the influence of Christian Evangelicals and “Christian Zionism” in this equation.   We can still frame it in religious context and not end up in the same distorted view we have of Israel/Palestine.

 One can imagine a situation involving Irish Catholics, who by and large supported Irish Catholic terrorism under the IRA. There were many bloody, horrific attacks in which the IRA attacked Protestants. Imagine that as a response, Protestants were to confine all Catholics into a small geographic area, walled it in, and surrounded it with a well-armed military, bristling with very high tech, advanced weapons, all heavily financed and supported by their co-religionists, the British. Now the IRA have retreated into that enclave, tunneling beneath the civilian population. Women and children. Dense with homes. Schools. Hospitals.  If Irish Protestants were to begin indiscriminately firing rockets, including white phosphorous shells, into the Catholic enclave - from thousands of feet in the air where they are free from any risk to themselves – any civilized nation and its citizens would stand on its hind legs and howl. If they were to indiscriminately kill all those trapped within, destroy infrastructure, homes, churches, hospitals? Deprive all inhabitants of food, water, fuel, and medicine – we would not hesitate to call that a war crime. 

 Were there also of the Irish Terrorists? Absolutely yes. (to the Irish Catholics, they were “freedom fighters”) Did the IRA massacre Protestants? Absolutely yes.  Does that justify the wholesale slaughter of ALL of the Irish Catholics?  Absolutely not.

 While living on Kibbutz Ginegar near Afula, in 1982, I watched tanks roll northward and heard the jets flying low to avoid radar detection as Israel surged into Lebanon. The jets, roaring past us at the speed of sound caused sonic booms that rattled our windows. Kibbutz Ginegar, in the northern end of the Valley of Sharon, is not far from Meggido. Har Meggido (Mount Megiddo) that is. If that sounds vaguely familiar to you, you might know it better as Armageddon. It surely felt like Armegeddon was imminent.

 The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 followed an earlier invasion in 1978 that pushed Palestinians north of the Litani River in Southern Lebanon.  Thereafter, civil unrest among Lebanese factions allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to continue operations against Israel to the south. In 1982, Israeli joined forces with Lebanese Christian Militias to expel the PLO.  

 I watched in horror as the Lebanese and Israelis systematically massacred Palestinians at Sabra & Shatilla refugee camps near Beirut. 

 All of this occurred when Jewish Settlers were ramping up settlements in the Occupied Territories further displacing Palestinians. Displacement of Palestinians is a fact that has been going on since at least 1948. Actually, long before that.

 More recently, Israel built "security barriers" around both the West Bank and Gaza. These are concrete walls, as high as 20 or more feet in some places, topped with barbed wire and guard towers. The roads that run from one Jewish settlement to another (settlements illegal under international law) bisect the remaining Palestinian villages.  Palestinians are forbidden to use those roads.  This is what many refer to as the Apartheid State in Israel.

 Many do not realize the occupation of West Bank and settlements have nothing to do with religion, although they are justified by the biblical notion of Judea and Samaria. Nor are they connected to nationality - historical or cultural connection to the land. No. If you look at a map of the Jewish settlements and overlay it with the hydrologic maps identifying of the natural aquifers providing the primary source of fresh water in the region you will find that the Jewish settlements are placed strategically over and around the only natural aquifers in the region. Israel has systematically deprived Palestinians of the water necessary for their mostly agricultural villages. The desert blooms only for Israelis but at the expense of their Palestinian neighbors.  Palestinian settlements that have been in place for hundreds of years and held by generations of Palestinians. These Palestinian farms – utterly deprived of water – are destroyed and Palestinians herded into ever smaller enclaves. Olive groves hundreds of years old that supplied food and sustenance for generations of Palestinians are bulldozed into oblivion, along with their homes.

 Meanwhile, south and west of the Occupied West Bank and not connected by any land bridge, Israel claims to have "completely withdrawn" from Gaza in 2005. That is fiction. They "withdrew" their occupying military forces but retained control of all ingress/egress (now walled in) They control the water, fuel, electricity and all imports and exports including food, building materials and medical supplies. They never relinquished that control. That is why they can, overnight, turn it all off.

  If you cannot see the obvious comparison to these Pales-stans, I will make it plain: Israel created their very own Warsaw Ghettos. They are now bent on “liquidation” – which does not necessarily mean death. Liquidation, or “ethnic cleansing” is a term not defined explicitly identified as war crime on it’s own. However, the U.N. Security Council’s Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992) , citing to it’s interim report states (emphasis mine):

 ``55. The expression `ethnic cleansing' is relatively new. Considered in the context of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, `ethnic cleansing' means rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area. `Ethnic cleansing' is contrary to international law.

`56. Based on the many reports describing the policy and practices conducted in the former Yugoslavia, `ethnic cleansing' has been carried out by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property. Those practices constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.

Zionists (both Jewish AND Christian) justify ethnic cleansing to address the "Existential Crisis" of the Jews. Or the Rapturous Ecstasy of Salvation. Our existence, or salvation, is theoretically only guaranteed by the existence of the State of Israel. The long Jewish existential nightmare was, of course, set in collective minds of Jews around the world by the Holocaust. Long before that, the Jewish Diaspora, following the destruction of the 2nd Jewish temple in 70 CE, together with repeated experience -  across generations - of antisemitism, pograms, internal exile to The Pale – all a steady crescendo culminating in the Holocaust. In Europe.

 This existential threat is the reason all Jews everywhere in the world have a "Right of Return" to the land of Israel. It's automatic. We can ‘return’ anytime – to a place some have never been before - claiming the right to make Aliyah (the right to “go up” to Israel). Upon arrival we may instantaneously become a citizen (as I and my entire family did in 1979). When you do that, the State of Israel pays a very generous part of your transition. They provide housing, language schools, subsidies, loan guarantees, free importation of all your household goods (including duty free appliances and cars).

 The Gelbman family – all of us - received all of that free even though we were a wealthy American family.  In our case, we were given – rent free – two apartments in a lovely seaside suburb of Ashkelon. In our “Merkaz Klitah” (Absorption Center) there were three brand-new high-rise apartment buildings with a view of the sea a few blocks distant. Mom, Dad and the 2 boys in one building, I and my two sisters in a second apartment across the courtyard. Both apartments were furnished with basic furniture and household goods which were ours to keep. Those items referred as “Sachnut” (Jewish Agency) furniture, all pretty utilitarian, but we were very comfortable.

 For you who are believers and know your Bible, you’ll recall Ashkelon as the place where Samson did his thing with Delilah and the Philistines.  See also The Book of Judges (ספר שופטים) chapters 13-16.


 Ashkelon is roughly 15 miles north of Gaza – both snug up against the same Mediterranean Sea and some mighty gorgeous beaches.  There we were provided with intensive Hebrew language lessons in an “Ulpan” (studio) 6 hours a day, 6 hours a day. My two younger brothers (then 8 and 14) went straight to Israeli public schools the day after we arrived.  So, our life as Jews, Returning to the Land of Israel, began. Having had no Jewish upbringing at all prior to arrival.

 For hundreds of years, following the destruction of the 2nd Temple a small remnant of Jews continued to live peacefully side by side with the other indigenous people - the Palestinians.  The Jews in Diaspora (Dispersion) were displaced by Romans. In turn, those of us claiming our Right of Return would displace Palestinians.

 That was NOT in 1948. Nor was it following the Holocaust or the Israeli War of Independence. It was well underway before that. The Holocaust accelerated the establishment of the state and only after Zionist militants – terrorists – convinced the British to depart. Menachem Begin was a leader of the Irgun and they were terrorists.

 Zionism developed into a formal movement in 1896 following the publication of Theodor Herzl's pamphlet, "The Zionist State." While there was plenty of antisemitism in Europe driving that movement, it was no different from all other forms of "nationalist" movements that were cropping up all over Europe. And elsewhere around the world. These nationalist aspirations accelerated in the wake of World War I (including many former colonies in Southeast Asia and across the African Continent).  Nationalism has its roots in the French Revolution, but basically it advocates for the creation of nations based on ethnicity. Ethnic Slavs, ethnic Germans (so-called “Aryans”), ethnic Magyars. It is closely related to the pseudo-science popular at the same time, called Eugenics. Eugenics also justified segregation in the U.S.  (curiously, the University of Virginia was a central hotbed of "Eugenics" and has a frightful history of conducting and supporting it as a "science").

 Here is the rub. Jewish Zionist aspirations did not succeed as others seemed to do at that time. Instead, the Holocaust happened - as we know all too well. The trauma was real, and it remains with us - passed down through the generations since. But a Jewish Holocaust is not happening NOW. Not to the Jews anyway. There is no existential threat to the State of Israel. Do people get killed? Yes. Horribly, tragically. However, the current existential threat is to the PALESTINIANS. Ethnic cleansing has been going on for decades. Israel did not just start firing missiles into Gaza on October 8th. For years Israeli rockets have come in response to rockets fired OUT of Gaza. Until recently, the missiles coming out of Gaza have been very crude, unguided weapons that land pretty much anywhere and often hit no target at all.  The ratio of Jews to Palestinians killed since 2000 is OVERWHELMINGLY more Palestinian that Jewish. See also:

  Israel has been firing high tech guided missiles into Gaza as if shooting fish in a barrel for decades.

 Much of what we have read or heard about events on October 7th are shrouded in the “fog of war” – on both sides. The Hamas attacks are monstrous. Ghastly. Hearing of the hostage taking we are filled with horror and terror, our trauma response on full display. However, accurate or not, I note that both Haaretz and Yidiot Achronot (two major Israeli daily news papers) reported that some of the bodies recovered at the music festival or nearby are in fact Palestinians burnt beyond recognition and only identified by DNA. Also, both Israeli papers are reporting that Israeli helicopters arriving on the scene indiscriminately fired rockets into the crowd and themselves are responsible for some portion of the casualties. It’s monstrous. All of it. But I do not accept at face value everything I see, read or hear.

 Almost everyone believes this problem is intractable. So complicated! So much history! HUNDREDS of years of conflict! All of that is an excuse to justify the status quo. But we have NOT preserved the status quo. Palestinians have continued to be displaced. Israel is now taking the recent Hamas attack as a carte blanche to “finish the job of annihilating Palestinians once and for all.” (a phrased used by leaders of the Knesset and American supporters alike).  Under the guise of "defense" -- they are turning Gaza into nothing but dust and rubble. They’ve massacred 10s of thousands in the last several weeks, among them some 4000 children, and mostly civilians. Simultaneously they are taking the opportunity to allow Jewish Settlers to run rampant in the West Bank. There they are terrorizing what remains of Palestinian cities and agricultural villages “inducing” their departure. And this morning I am reading of attacks in Lebanon and Syria as well. See also:

 Hamas does NOT control the West Bank (the Palestinian Authority does, which grew out of Yassir Arafat’s PLO). Efforts to "eradicate Hamas" from the West Bank are a fiction and have no relation to the attacks against Israel on October 7. Are there radical Muslims on the West Bank? Yes of course.  Little known fact: there is also a very large number of Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem is mostly populated by Christian Palestinians. It is in the heart of the West Bank.  Nazareth also has a sizable Christian population (which should come as no surprise to anyone).

 Hamas operates out of Gaza, not the West Bank. Important to understand that Hamas is the elected government of Gaza (not the West Bank) since 2006. A democratically conducted election complete with international election observers, including some from Jimmy Carter’s “Carter Center.”   What many do not know is that Hamas – like the Irish national movement - is made up of two wings. Much like the Irish political movement, there is a terrorist IRA-like wing and a separate social/political wing. And Hamas’ military wing are brutal terrorists. The social/political wing of Hamas built schools, hospitals, orphanages, and many other beneficial welfare programs. THAT is who Gazan’s elected in 2006. They won 35% of the available parliamentary seats. Enough for a controlling interest in their government but by no means an overwhelming majority.  The military wing has held all of Gaza hostage ever since. No subsequent elections have ever been held. Worse - and little known outside Israel –Netanyahu and his Likud partners – funded and supported Hamas. This is well documented and was reported in the Jerusalem Post in 2019. See:

 Israeli violence and purposeful displacement in the West Bank (not Gaza) is in no way, shape or form any form of “defense” yet it has accelerated since October 7th. That is ethnic cleansing and it's a war crime above, beyond and entirely separate from the blockade of Gaza, and the targeting of hospitals and other civilian sites in Gaza. That is opportunism. “Jewish settlers” are doing it under the protection, watchful and very complacent gaze of the Israeli military. And the U.S. government.

 It is not Jewish existence that is threatened. It is Palestinians’ existence at peril.

 So. All that said, one must ask: what is the solution?  I don’t think it is nearly as complicated as most others do. It may be because I do not get bogged down in historical and religious claims. A large part of which is fiction and mythology. Even if one buys all of that, it is possible to set all that aside and go from where we are today.

 I tend to think in analogies. It helps me to understand things. Here is my analogy.

 This entire situation is like a super-sized case of domestic violence. Domestic Violence is chaotic, but it does not spring up a vacuum. It bubbles along, hidden from the neighbors view behind lace curtains – a brutal prison masquerading as a happy home. It is only revealed to outsiders when a crisis occurs. When things spiral out of control. When such a crisis breaks out, law enforcement is called in. Talk to any first-responder and they will tell you that DV calls are the most terrifying and dangerous - for everyone.

 When the police arrive, they cannot broker "peace" between a violent brute standing over his battered and powerless wife. No. USUALLY someone has to be removed from the situation. Someone gets to spend a night in jail and the spouse is whisked off to a secret shelter. In other words, the parties are SEPARATED until the power differential can be equalized. Then and only then can one properly work toward protecting the interests of both parties.

 That's what has to happen. The U.S. is NOT a proper party to intervene because we are the ones who arm and finance Israel. We have kept our thumb heavily on the scale of power thereby multiplying the differential by an order of magnitude. There is no way Palestinians can trust or rely upon the U.S. to guarantee their safety long enough to broker any kind of settlement. That cannot work. That is the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  But they MUST be separated, and the shooting stopped. The land grabbing stopped. It will probably require a robust multi-national police force.  That is how Jimmy Carter got Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to Camp David to forge the first peace agreement. The shooting stopped. Importantly, Carter threatened to cut off ALL financial and military support to Israel in order to get Begin to come to the table at all. Many people do not know that or have forgotten. It was a KEY factor in the success of the Camp David Accords. Sadat for his part risked his life to make it happen.  Shutting off the U.S. tap is the only thing that seems to shift the imbalance of power.  

 SO they get separated. NOW what? Well, I think the analogy goes further. We MUST acknowledge the effect trauma -including intergenerational trauma - has had on all of us.

 This is where I get into trouble with many Jewish and Christian people with whom I’ve shared my thoughts. I postulate that the abused have become the abusers.

 The trauma of the Holocaust still exists. It still exists in me.  Trauma informed therapy shows that failure to deal with the underlying trauma means that the trauma RESPONSE will persist. What we know about the trauma of domestic violence is that the abused victim --- without intervention – can (often does?) become the abuser. In that way I am NOT shocked that the survivors and offspring of the Warsaw Ghetto and survivors of concentration camps have themselves created their own modern-day equivalents in Gaza and the West Bank.  Some may find it shocking to know that Israel has a deeply hidden culture that fetishizes Nazism in pornography. It’s shocking but I’ve seen it myself. (Don’t ask!)

 By now several generations of both Jews AND Palestinians are egregiously traumatized. Repeatedly and horrifically. The trauma response – brutal violence - will continue until they can be separated and allowed to deal with the underlying  trauma - not the land. When the trauma response is arrested, the power differential evened out, then, and only then can the peace process begin. Just as it does in divorce. Property settled. Custody and support set forth in a binding agreement.

 I have so much more to say. But that's enough for now. What we need is not merely a pause or even a cease fire. What we need is a HALT and robustly enforced de-escalation. NOW. And immediate disarmament of both parties with a guarantee of safety - to both sides. There can be NO successful negotiation until there is a level playing field. The power differential makes that impossible and always has. There is no basis for trust for American negotiators by Palestinians. As long as the U.S. is arming Israel, and financing everything else - no amount of "humanitarian aid" to Palestinians has any meaning whatsoever. “Humanitarian aid” in the present circumstances is like beating a child half to death with an iron rod while he is tied to a chair, the brutality pausing just long enough to give the child a sip of water to revive him, only to continue the beating. It's insanity to expect any other outcome but more radicalization, more brutality and violence.

 Brutality begets brutality. And the present situation only further radicalizes both sides. Israel is not defeating or eradicating terrorism. It is encouraging it. On both sides. In the name of “god.” And we are helping them.  It must stop.

No more. Not in my name. Not. In. My. Name.


Friday, November 24, 2023

A Rapturous Return

 On St. Patrick’s Day, they say everyone is Irish.

 I come by my Irish honestly.  I’m not sure precisely which strands of the other 50% of my DNA are the Irish ones, but all of my mother’s family descend from Celts. Irish, Scots, Welsh.
 Seated around that table at Thanksgiving, they were all there. In the flesh. Grandma and Grandpa Jones (a classic Welsh name). My mother’s 3 siblings, Richard, Peggy and Bob are there too. Their wives and children.  Early on, the previous generation is there too – Great Grandma Barker. Great Grandma Jones. Great Aunt Ruth (my grandfather’s sister).
We were the living model for “The Wonder Years” growing up in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington DC. Riding our bikes, tooling around on roller skates. Playing kickball in the street. Chasing lightning bugs on summer nights. Idyllic.  Mom the quintessential housewife, dad the successful, self-made business man. Two cars in the driveway. Manicured lawn.
On holidays, five wee Gelbmans at the children’s table, sometimes with cousins Rick and Randy. Actually, we four, Susie, Anna, Me, (who’s initials together, according to my dad, spelled out “SAD”) later joined by Michael, and much later, baby Peter.  Pete was not at that children’s table much. He was an “accident.” Born ten years after me. He has no recollections of our Wonder Years.
At the grown-ups table Aunt Peggy is funny, silly and with startling, bright red hair. The remnant of the Irish in us, it appears once or twice in every generation. They are all there, the Celts. Right there in the room, in the flesh. They are not ghosts gathered in the far corners of my mind. They are not much of interest to me then. Richard, Peggy and Bob are still alive though my mother has passed.

 Meanwhile, Little Heinele has grown up. The small European refugee boy grew up and never wished to be the kike from Europe.  He became the all-American boy in Flatbush New York, playing stickball in the street. Hot dogs. Apple pie. Chevrolet. 

After his mother remarried and his stepfather adopted him, he joined Louie at the firehouse in Anacostia. He would never finish high school, instead joining the navy at 17.
 While still in the Navy, in those idyllic 1950’s, while on leave in Miami, he meets Phyllis, then known as” Jonesy. On a blind date set up by an older Gelbman cousin, Jonesy and “Hank” meet in a bar at the beach. He is handsome, outgoing, and fun. She is shy but stylish with a cigarette in her graceful hand on her knee and drink in her other hand.  She is on vacation with her classmate from nursing school.  He makes her laugh.

My mother would tell me that my father married her – of all things – because she was clean.  My mother and dad both were very fastidious. Mom obsessively so. I presumed it was the result of those years as a nurse. I later learned that Mom was already pregnant with my eldest sister when they married. She told us that herself as a cautionary tale when the time came to tell us about “the birds and the bees.”
The all-American boy, formerly known as Heinele, has become “Hank.” He has married into what he believes is an all American Goyisher family – the Jones Family. The wedding photos reveal that neither set of parents were very happy about this development. Grandma Gelbman wears a black dress.  

Both Grandma and my mother are now “Phyllis Gelbman.”   Grandma will remarry again and finally, much later in her seventies, become Grandma Finklestein.  

Fela Bloch, Jakub, Rita and Heinrich Rosenberg have all faded - lost in the past.

By contrast, the Jones family has been in the U.S. for several generations. Grandpa Jones, born David Walter Jones has a deep bass voice, likely from a strong strand of Welsh DNA. He plays the mandolin and sings in the church choir. He also sings us many silly nursery rhymes and children’s songs.
Grandma Jones, a mousy little wisp of a woman with iron grey hair when I meet her, was born Novella Wanda Hess. Despite her German family name, the Scottish strand of my DNA comes through her. Great Grandma Barker was my mother’s Grandma – born Elizabeth Peters.

My middle name, Weston, comes from Great Grandma Jones. She was born Florence Weston Kelley.

Weston was her mother, Harriet Weston. She married James Kilkelly, or Kelly as he became later in America. His father, Patrick Kilkelly crossed the pond from County Galway.  There is my Irish.  I have a photo of him too. In the slouched hat and rumpled uniform of the Union Army, part of the  5th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1861.

These are not ghosts to me. They are living breathing people many of whom I knew in my youth. They sat at our Thanksgiving table. I have little interest in them until much, much later.
Curiously, the genetic strand of my DNA that carries the alcoholism gene I inherited comes not from the Irish. It was passed through my Grandma Jones by her father, Charles Hess. He is a ghost to me. Like the other half of my DNA, he is ghostly, shrouded in mist, standing on a bridge where he is last seen in my Grandmother’s childhood, she abandoned there long ago. I would learn about him only much later in my life. Like the other ghosts, unseen, unspoken, a dark secret.  A secret I would carry, a story I’ve told many, many times in the rooms of recovery over the last 30 years and not a part of the one I’m currently writing. Like many children of alcoholics, my grandmother didn’t let booze cross her lips. Indeed after a brief flirtation with her stockings rolled down in flapper fashion, she enlisted as one of Carrie Nation’s hatchet bearing soldiers in the Temperance movement’s Home Defender's Army.
Phyllis Ruth Jones, or Jonesy, as her classmates would call her, was born in 1930, She was a child of the Depression and World War Two. Complete with Victory Garden. She would attend High School near

Pittsburgh and go off to Nursing School in Philadelphia (where she would reconnect with Hank sometime after their first blind date in the smokey bar at the beach in Miami.  

Before Hank comes on the seen again, Jonesy dates another boy. In her burgeoning womanhood, she and he take a wild ride in her car. They are in an accident the details of which were obscure. The boy is killed. Jonesy has a badly shattered ankle that will hobble her for the remainder of her life. Rehabbing her ankle, she returns as an RN on the floors of the hospital. She does a rotation in a psychiatric hospital where the doctors encourage her to remain in service because she exhibits a talent for caring for the mentally ill. She declines and goes on to become an RN and an anesthetist in the operating room.

 Jonesy is as far from her Baptist upbringing as Hank is from his Judaism when they meet. 1950’s America allows them to intermarry and begin raising a family without benefit of the blessing of either.
One by one, the Gelbman girls – babies Sue, Anna and Doris (SAD) – appear in quick succession. By the time I turned up, Jonesy had reverted to Phyllis again. The girls are but 18 months apart. She is tired from nursing, worn out by diapers, wet beds, picking up the toys, doing the laundry, preparing the meals where the milk regularly gets spilled. PTA. Field trips on noisy buses full of rowdy children.
When little Michael comes along, the much anticipated first son, Phyllis is at a low ebb. She does not come home from the hospital right away. Grandma Jones arrives to care for the girls.

 I don’t know how long Mom remained in the hospital. I was just four. My mother told us (many years later) that she suffered from Post Partum Depression.  I would figure out – only relatively recently from some missing facts she disclosed in her old age and my own experience observing her fight the demons only she could see – that she suffered from Post Partum Psychosis.
Mom would discharge from the psychiatric ward with a common remedy. Jesus.
This was not our first experience with Jesus. Mom, early on, decided that the children should have some religious upbringing. That is how it happened that I was baptized at a Lutheran Church. Calvary Lutheran Church on Georgia Avenue in Silver Sprint. I remember it well. Not the baptism. The church was just down the road from Holy Cross Hospital where my tonsils were extracted, and my broken wrist set.
Dad, ambivalent to any thought of religion, spent his Sundays in the basement, which he finished with fiberboard paneling and installed both pool and ping pong tables. On Sunday nights, his idea of preparing a meal was to pop us a big bowl of popcorn while we sat in front of the tv, absorbed in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom followed by the Wonderful World of Disney. At the Magic Kingdom.
Mom’s ecstatic epiphany did not end there.
She became increasingly disenchanted with the organized churches she bounced into and out of over the next few years. She would stumble on a charismatic community of evangelicals. She was often away from home – at prayer meetings, gathering with her new friends. They the wives of equally pagan men u on whom the “Mad Men” might have been modeled – each of the Daddies going off to work in the company Buick, decked in their grey flannel suits.  The wives in living rooms discussing salvation and studying the bible. Praying for salvation for their husbands.  With the kids at their feet.
The Kennedys and Martin Luther King are dead. The sixties are upon us (which were really the Seventies).  The Jewish Cousins Club in New York – a fleeting presence in my life  at bar mitzvahs have grown into Hippies. Cousin Andrea has departed for India where she marries her Yogi. Marc is tooling around Manhattan in a sporty, convertible MG his hair now well below his shoulders under a top hat and wearing a cape.

 Ever more absent at home, Mom joins the burgeoning Jesus Movement. This is the rocks on which the marriage nearly founders.  Dad comes home to find no dinner on the table. The kids are not lined up to greet him at the door in adoration. There are fights into the night, many over money, but the angry shouts reaching the bedrooms above are muffled and we cannot make out the words.
Fed up, Hank leaves home. I have no idea how long they were apart. It was probably a matter of weeks at most. He came home from work to find a note from my mother, “I’ve taken the kids…”  He did not read the rest. The rest said, “…Christmas shopping.”  The note said, “I’ve taken the kids Christmas shopping.”  I remember his homecoming, Christmas Day 1969. He arrived bearing enormous stuffed animals which joined the rest of the loot under the Christmas Tree.

 Nothing was more important to Dad than his family. He had nothing otherwise. He had no Mommy or Daddy to model parenthood upon. His mother was absent in the early days of their arrival in New York, she struggled to learn English while working in a raincoat factory in the Lower East Side. She later served frothy steins of beer in the Catskills while little Heinele went off to a foster home. He would learn his Bar Mitzvah Haftorah by rote from a record in the home of his Catholic foster parents. He would not step foot in a Synagogue again for many, many years.
Now, imagining he has failed as a parent and a husband, my mother comes home to  find him on his knees, tears streaming down his face in the library. Before him is a tattered copy of the book “The Cross and the Switchblade” then popular book by David Wilkerson about the redemption of New York teen gangsters into the loving arms of Salvation.  It is the redemption he seeks.
To this day, I am convinced that my father came to Jesus only to save his marriage. I will never know what Salvation really meant to him.
Joined together in Jesus, things spiral out of control in the Gelbman home. Behind the neat curtains and carefully mowed lawn, things become ever more chaotic.
Fun Dad is gone. Replaced by “spare the rod spoil the child” dad. I will not dwell there now.
Sometime before this, Phyllis made a pilgrimage to the “The Holy Land” – twice. She has long since left the confines of the traditional church. She has fallen in with a Charismatic Christian movement led by Derek Prince who teaches “Discipleship.”  You can read about Derek Prince and his ministry – google him. I believe it morphed in today's "Dominionsm." 
In the Seventies, the Jesus Movement was at a fever pitch. Mom and Dad in the thick of it. They dabbled with Messianic Judaism and other strands of ecstatic Christianity.  Prayer in Tongues. Slain and Singing in the Spirit. Prophecy. Divination of Dreams. Everything but the vipers. Eventually, our home became a magnet for this ministry with my parents at the center, guided by cassette tapes distributed by Derek Prince and other ministers of discipleship. (Don Basham, Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson – I met them all).  They would lead eager pilgrims to Jerusalem and baptize them in the River Jordan.

 People from around the world begin to travel to our home to worship with my parents. Mom received the “gift of discernment.”  The discernment of evil spirits. Demons that came into our home from around the globe. Washing one another’s feet, humbling themselves in the Lord, the Spirit of Jesus would descend upon them. Mom would cast out the evil spirits in a cacophony of weeping and wailing. Exhortations to “Come out! Come out! In the Name of Jesus!” -- demonic screams echoing across the ravine by our house well into the wee hours of the morning, vomit spewed across the living room where  they would collapse, washed by the blood of Jesus white as the driven snow.

 I was 12. I was terrified. Yet I was also in the thick of things. Prayed in tongues. Prophesied. Delivered of the Demon of Rebellion several times. (you can see how successful that was). Full immersion baptism (on several occasions).  I knew it wasn’t real. It was a cult. In a cult you conform, or you too are cast out. Banished. Screaming and howling.

In the world outside, the Women’s Movement and the Vietnam War raged. Bras were burning and so where Buddhist monks.  Mom cancelled our subscriptions to Look and Life Magazines. The photo spreads were too ghastly for children.

 There was no room in Discipleship for Feminism. Gloria Steinem had no words for my mother. Paradoxically, women also had no place in leadership of the Discipleship either. Patriarchy was the fundamental tenent. Women must be "covered" by their husbands and submit. There was no room for a woman claiming a ministry within its circle. Eventually at odds with the entire movement, Mom was excommunicated from the Body of Christ.  Still a zealous believer. 

Somewhere along the line she had been drawn to a book that would guide her for the remainder of her life. In addition to the writings of the Apostle Paul.

 Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” is based on prophesies from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It draws from “dispensationalism” to predict the second coming of Jesus. In it, he asserts that Jesus' return will be within one generation (40 years) of the rebirth of the state of Israel (1948), and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple – all imminent. In order for this prophecy to be fulfilled, all the Jews must return to rebuild Zion and the 3rd Temple.  “All the Jews…”  to include my father of course.

 And so began our journey toward “Aliyah.”  Aliyah is a term used when a bar mitzvah boy ascends to the Torah and becomes a man. It is also the term used for immigration to Israel. The “Return” to which we had a Right. One “goes up” to Jerusalem.
In between, there were short visits from the Jewish Cousin Club . My big cuz, Andrea, would appear one day with her Yogi, Tom. They rolled up in a beat up VW bus, with their young daughter, she with tousled golden curls and freckled cheeks, bouncing in the back. Smoking clove cigarettes and eating millet they were on their way to return to their off the grid cabin in British Columbia. I would not see Andrea again for a good many years.   Her younger brother Marc zoomed up in his little MG convertible with his his buddy Louie. They would visit us a few times – taken with the magic and mystery of the nightmare I was living. Marc too I would not reconnect with for many years.
Meanwhile the Gelbman’s slowly rose - making our Aliyah in early 1979.  We left shortly after I graduated from High School, just 18 years old.  I moved in and out of the cult in those years. Eventually I would break away and return briefly to the U.S.  I was sure they were all crazy. But so was I. Back I would go with no faith at all that Jesus would descend from the Mt. of Olives to save me.
I would ultimately spend 7 years in Israel. Fully assimilated into Jewish Israeli life.

One by one, each of my family would “Yored” – go down from the land of Milk and Honey back to the land of Milk and Money.  The last to leave, I would probably be there still had it not been for my job which me to London (where I spent another couple of years). I have no cultural references to pop culture of the 1980's as it was in the U.S. in those years.
In the end, I would become completely estranged from my family. Well, not the end. But for a very long time I continued to wander in the desert apart from my tribe.  I would eventually travel to some 35 countries around the world.   But it would take a very long time before I found myself and reconciled with my parents. I would never truly reconcile with my siblings and despite every effort, even now I am in communication only with one of my brothers. The rest are still scarred and steeped in the trauma of religious ecstasy, we are largely estranged still.
On his deathbed, my father would suddenly begin to second guess his salvation. He was tortured by the idea that it might all have been a myth.   His was an existential crisis - the failure of faith at the end of his life. Full of doubt and fear he died a painful death from a gastric bleed following decades of swallowing his own trauma and eating his gut away with painful ulcerative colitis. It was a lifelong condition he’d been faith healed -  delivered from - in 1969. Or so we were told.
My mother, resolutely faithful to the end, prayed for my salvation until her dying day. She was  deeply concerned that we would not meet again in Heaven if I did not come to Jesus.  In her final years she wished only to be together with my father again. She was certain he would be waiting for her in Heaven. She died in 2019 at age 89. She passed peacefully in her sleep at one with her God.
I too was at peace with both of them. Fully reconciled. They are buried side by side on a mountain-top in Southwest Virginia. Right next to Grandma Finkelstein who died in 1996 well into her nineties.
Years before their deaths, when doing their estate planning, Mom and Dad wrote to each of us asking what of their belongings each of us might want.  The only thing I asked for were the family photographs. There wasn’t much else of interest. All the family heirlooms – the cribs, the first grade drawings, family silver, the baby books and such had all long since been lost or abandoned in the moves back and forth overseas.
Mom held on to many of the family photo albums until she died. My sister Anna had hoarded the rest.  After a bit of a tussle, I sprang them loose and they arrived on my doorstep in a 2’ x 2’ x 2’ cardboard carton a few weeks after Mom died.  I poured over them.  I eventually had them all digitized but in the process, I looked at each and every one of them.  Young, foreign-looking Heinele in short pants.

Baby Phyllis in in her Easter best riding a trike. 

Hank in his Navy Blues. Jonesy in her nurse’s training uniform. A skinny young married couple honeymooning in Ocean City. Grinning proud parents with their first-born child. Children kneeling beneath the Christmas tree - a tree all dressed in up  glittery metallic 1960’s tinsel. Gawky teenagers in Levis and ill fitting flannel shirts. High School portraits, the kids now as young marrieds the grandchildren bouncing on grandpa’s knee.  They are all there. The Grandpas – David and Jakub. Both Grandmas - Fela and Novella. All the Aunts and Uncles. My Cousins – New York and Pittsburgh branches. In the flesh, not ghosts. Not dreams nor nightmares. Some in faded black and white. Others in vivid Kodachrome color. They all Returned to me. Faded but still glossy, healthy and whole. Returned home.
POSTSCRIPT: While sorting the hundreds and hundreds of photos, I had an epiphany of my own. As I studied the woman who was my mother, I saw her for the very first time not as my mother. I saw her emerge as the woman she was. Flawed and fabulous both. A daughter. A student. A nurse. A wife. A visionary. Psychotic and Sane.  Among the photos, I also found some journals she kept. Travel journals. Her thoughts, and worries. Her notes from her bible studies over many years. Her prayers.  The common thread through all of it was love. Love for her god. Her children. Most of all for her husband. She was deeply in love with my Dad. It flows through every line on each and every page.  Though I don’t have his words, I have his deeds and I know that he deeply loved her – and each of us – in Return. He gave his entire life for us. They both did. And that too flows in my veins.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Right of Return

 For the unindoctrinated, allow me to explain that the Right of Return is something all Jews, around the world, share.  It is in answer to the existential crisis born of anti-semitism and the aftermath of the Holocaust. It is the universal right of any Jew, anywhere, to “return” to the State of Israel. We have the right to go and instantly upon arrival, claim citizenship.  I have it. My brothers and sisters have it. My parents too. Despite the fact that Mom was not a Jew at all (quite the contrary!)

 Many of you don’t know this about me, being a naturalized Israeli. I speak good, if rusty modern Hebrew. Read and write at probably a first grade level at best, still, enough to make out a bit. I was 18 when we left a very cushy life in the U.S. to claim our Right of Return. I remained about 7 years.  How all this came about is not the story I plan to write today (another day perhaps).

 I was not raised in the least small way as a Jew. In fact, I was baptized in a Lutheran church at birth. We went to Sunday school. Learned all our little Bible verses. Knew all the traditional hymns (still do). said The Lord’s Prayer. Did the Christmas Pageant, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a Manger, Wise Men, Shepherds out standing in the field.  

Holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter – were spent in the company of my mother’s family mostly. Good, churchgoing Northern Baptists in Pittsburgh where they attended weekly prayer meetings, Church services, sang in the choir. Today is not their story either. Another time I suppose.

 My Jewish upbringing consisted of two things: The very occasional occurrence of a Bat or Bar Mitzvah of my distant cousins whom I scarcely knew. Secondly endless repetitions of the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof blasting in the car on long trips. Each song – every note, all the lyrics - burned into my everlasting memory. It is the only music all seven of us could agree on during long drives – Ocean City each summer at minimum.  Happiest memories of my childhood.

 But about those holidays…

 As a kid, you don’t really think much about it. But somehow, in the deep recesses of my mind there were ephemeral shadows in the furthest corners of the room. Mom’s family – grandpa, grandma, Uncles Richard and Bob, their wives and kids, Aunt Peggy too - all present in the flesh. Great-grandmas Jones and Barker too when I was very small. All very much alive.  But those shadows. Who were they?

 My Dad never spoke about his family. His mother, my Grandma Gelbman, was not around much. My mother didn’t like having her around. I don’t recall ever spending a night in her home. She lived in distant Miami. She was the subject of much hilarity to us. She had a thick Yiddish accent which we mocked. She wore bright red nail polish and matching lipstick. She laughed a lot. My dad had nothing very nice to say about her.

 Dad never said  anything at all about his family. Not even his father and sister. Nothing at all. He was only 5-6 when they arrived in New York.  I knew he had a sister. And that she and his father both disappeared into the smoke and ashes of the Holocaust. We had but one photograph of them, all four, Grandma, Dad's father, his sister Rita and little Henry, just a toddler. It was a lovely studio portrait. Rita with a giant bow in her hair, Grandma smiling as always, her hair in tight little finger curls popular in the late 20’s and early thirties.

They were strangers to me and no one ever spoke of them. I only knew Rita’s name and nothing about their father.

 I was obsessed with them. Am still.  I read every book and memoir on the Holocaust that I could lay my hands on from the time I was able to read and choose books on my own at the library. Somehow, I got the notion that Rita might have survived. She was just an adolescent at the time, no more than 12 or 13. I was never able to get an answer to the question of what Grandma was able to discover in the aftermath of the war. No one talked about it.

It haunted me, these ghosts who lingered faintly around the edges of our family holidays. Unknown. Unspoken.

 When I was fourteen, curiosity got the better of me. I secretly wrote to my Grandmother and asked her about them. In return, with no explanation, no letter or any other clue, she sent me a large manila box. It was filled with photos. Letters. Telegrams. Postcards. All from the ghosts.  I didn’t tell anyone (eventually shared them with my younger brother Michael).

 The letters and other documents were in German, Polish and Yiddish. I could not read a word of it. By some strange stroke of luck, at almost the same time I received that box, there was a story in the local newspaper about a Polish Merchant Marine who had fallen overboard from his freighter while coming up the Chesapeake. He landed in the local Annapolis hospital. A translator was found for him and somehow I connected with her. She was able to translate all of the documents for me. She wrote them out in longhand on loose leaf notebook paper. I poured over them day after day. The ghosts had life breathed into them at last. They had names. Rita's name confirmed. She printed in her own childlike hand in some of them. Most were written by my great grandmother, Anna. My Dad’s maternal grandmother. My grandfather’s name was Jakub. Called 'Kuba' for short. Jakub Rosenberg (I knew the Rosenberg part). Grandma had a sister, Klara.

There were four siblings actually. My grandmother, then called 'Fela' which became Phyllis in America (it is also my mother’s name). Fela was the eldest. Next was her brother, Arthur, then the sister, Klara and finally Josef. Josef was a half brother and younger than the rest.  I knew Josef. He was my Uncle Joe. He’s called Juziu in many of the letters. But I knew him as Uncle Joe. A handsome, dashing European man who lived in New York with my beloved Aunt Fran. They have two children, Andrea and Marc. My only known cousins on that side of the family that I had ever known. They are little older than I and my siblings. Uncle Joe passed unexpectedly in 1969. I was just nine years old. But I remember him well.

 Despite the shadowy specter of the others, Joe was real. He survived the war in Europe. He has a remarkable story (as so many do).  Mysteriously I have always known about Joe’s story.  It was like learning to swim or ride a bike or knowing how to read. I cannot remember a time when I did not know how to do those things and I don’t recall not knowing Joe’s story. Curiously, Joe told it to my mother, not my Dad.  He told her the story in some detail but I don't think all of it made it to us kids. For all my mother’s  failings,  she could elicit things from people others never heard. Except for her own kids, she had an acute ability to listen to other's stories. And remember them. She always found Uncle Joe’s story remarkable and related it to us from a very early age. She never cottoned to most of the rest of the distant Jewish family – the “Cousin’s Club” as my New York relatives called them. She especially never much liked Grandma (though it was mom who cared for her in the end). But my Mom loved Joe and Fran and their kids like no others.  So did Dad. And so too did all of us children  because they did. I’m not going to tell Joe’s story here. Again, one for another day.

 I was in search of OUR story. 

 On and off over the years I would take a stab at uncovering more of the story. I did not have much success. I was told everything was destroyed during the war. I could find no trace of Rita, Jakub, Anna, Klara or any of the rest of the large extended family.

 But I kept at it. Like shred of tattered fabric I worried it time and again. I would find some loose thread over the years and tug at it until it unravel a little more.

 Finally, the miracle of unlocked a swath of sealed doors for me. I had little to begin with, but the story came out in dribs and drabs. I had names. I guessed at dates of birth. The records began to surface.

 At the very end of his life my Dad suddenly recalled  the name of the ship he and grandma sailed over to New York on and even remembered that they sailed from Genoa. Out of nowhere.  With that I was able to find the ship and the passenger manifest with their names on it. That led to the rest of the immigration story and unlocked a host of other resources.  It was BIZARRE that he just spit it out one day.  I often wonder  what else was locked in that traumatized little boy's head.  I begged him long ago to try hypnosis but he would have none of it.

 Hardly anyone knew that I'd been on this "quest" to discover our family's story from a very early age. I was always fascinated with Dad's origin. And mine. Probably because he never  talked about it at all. He claimed to have no memory of it. Incredible what trauma does to the mind to protect us from our demons and ghosts.  

 I went back to the letters received from my grandmother all those years ago. Mostly written by Anna (my grandmother's mother) telling us about all the others.

I continued to gather the facts as they slowly unraveled from these documents and records. I stored them like pebbles in a secret little sack. I've compiled quite a lot of documentation, photos and various records to trace the "facts" of our story. I think I have most of what is known of the historical record. The narrative has been percolating for many, many years. Only now am I weaving it all together. How I regret that I’d not spent the time and effort gathering the oral history from both parents, Uncle Joe, Aunt Fran and of course my Grandma Phyllis.  Nothing to be done about that now, they are all with the ghosts in the darkest corners of the dining room. Together at last.

 I've made a couple false starts - or hesitant ones anyway – taking stabs at writing it all down. I have an outline written but I have a feeling I will depart from that considerably. By necessity, I shall fill the gaps with what I imagine to be the "dialogue" -- one that has tripped through my head all these years. It needs to happen before my own mind and memory begin to fade. So here am I, today, putting pixelated pen to paper.

 My cousin, she of long ago New York fame, asked me recently to explain how my father and grandmother came to be Americans. She and I share a common Grandmother, Anna, and we have periodically exchanged information about that connection over the years.

 Their story, the story of Phyllis and Henry, my grandmother and father, are the jumping off point for mine.

 Here are the begats: Phyllis Gelbman, as I knew her, was born Fela Bloch in 1905. She married Jakub Rosenberg in 1929. Rita Rosenberg was born a year later, and  Henry, born Heinrich Rosenberg or “Heinele” as he appears in the letters, was born in 1934. They lived in a town called Bielsko-Biala, in southwest Poland, or Silesia (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). The borders shifted a lot in those day.

In Bielsko-Biala was a park, called “Zigeurnawald” which translates to “Gypsy Wood.”  On the edge of the woodland park, there is a  Beer Garden. Filled with food, drink, music and life. The Bloch Family Restaurant. Owned by Fela’s parents. The family all worked there. Fela, her sister Klara, Arthur and Joe.   I have photos of tiny Heinele perched on his mother’s knee at an outdoor table with Kuba, a bottle on the table and toddler Rita peeking over the tables edge. There are musicians nearby – a guitar and standing double bass easily visible. Waiters in waistcoats and tails with white aprons around their middles.

 Even in faded grayscale, It is full of life. It is the quintessential European tableau.

 How then, did they arrive here? How does one explain how Fela and Heinele alone, of all of them, sailed to America, in the middle of a raging war, from Genoa, Italy?

 Why Fela and Heinele but not Rita and Jakub?

 Enter the Nazis. The photo of the restaurant is from about 1936. In 1939 the Germans stormed across the Polish border. The Blochs. The Rosenbergs. The Frankels and the Hupperts all fled by train eastward, into what is today L’viv Ukraine, then it was L’vov, in Soviet occupied Poland.  From there, the Rosenbergs continued on to Moscow. And it is there that a bizarre turn of fate emerges.  Fela presents herself at the U.S. Embassy claiming to be a U.S. Citizen. And so she is.

 A new set of threads begins to unravel.  It is the Bloch Family Restaurant. Established sometime around 1880.  By grant to Baruch Bernard Cohen Bloch. His son, also Bernard, bears three children, Jakub, Arnold and Selma all of whom come into a controlling interest in restaurant.  Arnold sails off to seek his fortune in America. Selma disappears into the shadows but Jakub remains with his parents in the beer garden on the edge of the Gypsy Wood.

 This part, I must imagine. I imagine that a young Anna, then Anna Kurzowa, works at the Restaurant and there she meets Jakub, the young and handsome son of the owner. Jakub has come back from his military service to the Emperor Franz Joseph. I have a photo of a young Jakub Bloch in a Hessian military uniform. 

 I imagine an torrid, illicit affair as Papa and Mama Bloch would never bless a marriage with the hired help. Jakub, determined to forge a future with Anna, sails off to join his brother Arnold, now established in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the New World.

 It is 1903. Jakub Bloch arrives in the port of Baltimore. According to the passenger manifest, on the line below his name is Anna Kurz. They were presumably considering immigration  but arrived as tourists. I do not believe Anna and Jakub were married when they arrived in Baltimore. I have imagined that mama and papa Bloch back in Zigeurnawald objected to their marriage and so they ran away together to America. Jakub's brother, Arnold Bloch, had been in the U.S. for quite some time. Together, Arnold and Jakub opened a bicycle repair shop and may have had other business ventures as well. Fela, Jakub and Anna’s firstborn, is born in Bridgeport in 1905 while they were still on tourist visas even after arriving two years earlier. Baby Arthur arrives in 1907 – Jakub and Anna still here on tourist visas.  Fela and Arthur  were "anchor babies."  Both born in Bridgeport. And American citizens.

Anna and Jakub stayed in Connecticut until 1908 or 09 at which time they set sail back to Europe. Both their young American children in tow. Either onboard the ship or shortly after arriving, Jakub died of influenza. He's buried in the Jewish cemetery in Zigeurnawald. I am almost certain that Anna was pregnant with Klara on board that ship given her date of birth and Jakub's date of death. Klara would never have known her father which explains why she was, much later,  so close to Joe (her half brother) and HIS father Abraham Huppert.   It must have been quite a nauseating voyage for both Anna and Jakub.  He down with flu and she pregnant.

 When Jakub died, Anna retained a controling interest in his share of the restaurant. Arnold, still in America and had no interest in it. I'm not sure how things played out with the sister, Selma, still shrouded in a mystery I shall  continue to try to solve.

 And so Anna came to run The Bloch Family Restaurant. Fela, Klara,  andArthur all help her and it is very popular. There are picture postcards of it and it is something of a tourist destination.  Anna eventually meets and marries a frequent guest, Abraham Huppert. With Abraham, she has one son, my Uncle Joe.  In 1929, Arthur departs for America never to return. Perhaps he saw the way the winds were blowing in neighboring Germany? Or maybe the Depression made America seem like a better opportunity? I’m told by Arthur’s son, that he left to avoid military duty under the Austrian government.

 Much later,  Fela, Arthur and Klara inherited the beer garden through Anna, as surviving spouse of Jakub Bloch. or so the determination was made by the U.S. State Department following World War II. After the war, Fela, Arthur and Joe sought to regain the property. The State Department, examining their claim which is supported by documents (Wills, mortgage etc.) which together established Fela, Arthur and Klara as rightful heirs.   I still have not retrieved those yellowing records from the State Dept. archive (in Prince Georges County, Maryland) but I have State's decision which cite to the Wills and a mortgage on the property.

 Henry, my father, or “Heinele”  as he was known, was born in Poland in 1934. He never set foot outside Poland until they fled from the Nazi's in 1939. His U.S. citizenship is derived through Fela’s – who - because she was  born here - is automatically a citizen. She had to prove it in Moscow, and I have the State Department letter confirming that she did. Heinele – my Dad - benefited from a  change in U.S. immigration law in 1934 - the year dad was born. That change made it possible for Fela, a native born citizen,  to claim U.S. citizenship for him as a birthright. Jakub Rosenberg, my grandfather, had no such luck. Dad's older sister,  Rita also had no claim to a visa or passport because she was born in 1930 - BEFORE the law changed that saved both Dad and Grandma's lives. 

 With fresh new passports Fela and Heinrich, leave Rita and Jakub in Moscow and wend their way through war-torn Europe. They  eventually land in Genoa, Italy. From there they sailed for New York on a ship called "Rex”. The passenger manifest lists them together: Phyllis and Heinrich Rosenberg. She has already anglicized her name.   Jakub Rosenberg, having no visa and no claim of citizenship of any kind, remained behind in the USSR. From there he returned to Lvov under the Soviets. That's where Joe, Klara and Anna eventually found themselves under the Germans in the Jewish ghetto at Lvov. There they remain, in my imagination, with the others - Klara and Gundi (her husband) together with their two small children, my grandmother,  Anna, and many others. All remained in Lvov. Never to be seen again. Except Joe.

 It was in the forests near Lvov that my Uncle Joe – “Juziu” -  joined up with the Russians and Polish resistance. I believe they may have been Ukrainians, in that part of the USSR, not Russians. We have photos of Joe, on horseback and standing with a Russian general. It is said he cared for the horse and maintained the cars.  That’s a story for my cousins, Andrea and Marc to tell.

 Anna’s letters – and some recovered from Joe’s things much later (including some original poetry) - tell us where they are and what they are doing. Some are written in a type of code. Some were written in Ladino. Ladino, like Yiddish, uses Hebrew characters but is closer to Spanish. (Yiddish is Hebrew characters but closely related to German). The Ladino language correspondence use the latin alphabet. It took us forever to figure that out. Once translated, it is clear that they were speaking in a code and making efforts to escape. There are frequent references to going on a trip. By motorcycle and how it is repeatedly cancelled. We are guessing, but believe they were trying to get the U.S. family members to help them get out.  

Rita’s notes to her mother are in a childlike block print. She speaks Russian now as well. She is going to school and doing well. Some of the later envelopes and postcards bear swastika stamps from the Nazi censors. In 1942, they stop dead. Never to be heard from again.

 In all these years,  I have never found a single shred of information on Jakub Rosenberg, a very common name. I have uncovered no DNA link to connect me to any survivors of the Rosenberg family. Not one single  surviving relative.  My grandfather, had no Right of Return. He vanished.

 Grandma was born in Connecticut, a U.S. Citizen. Dad, born in Bielsko-Biala, is a U.S. citizen derived through her. They claimed their Right of Return and lived, giving life to me.

 There is another curious twist.

 Arnold Bloch, my grandmother’s uncle, still over in Bridgeport, married Bertha.... wait for it... GELBMAN. Bertha's much young brother was a man named. J. Louis Gelbman. Louie, as he was known, would be my grandmother’s Uncle by marriage. She would have known him as a very small child.  Many years later, when my grandmother escaped to the U.S., after the war and after all hope was lost that Jakub, Rita or any of the others would have survived, Louie and Phyllis would reconnect. They married one another in 1948. Louie became Dad's step-father. They were also somehow cousins though I don’t recall how precisely.    Louie, years before, had a daughter  by his first wife. His daughter was named Doris Gelbman. Yes, from whom I get my name. Doris would  later marry ... you won't believe it,  Stanley BLOCH --  Arnold and Bertha's son,  Also first cousins.

 It's a wonder we're not all cross eyed. Thankfully none of the cousins bore children together.

 I found it all terribly romantic. Especially Louie marrying my grandma all those years later. They were, apparently a true love match, something even my Dad recognized. Louie ultimately did adopt Dad and thus Gelbman is our legal name, not Rosenberg. I have the adoption papers among my stash of documents.  Louie was very, very good to both Dad and Grandma. He died shortly after I was born.

A Right of Return accounts for my existence. I have no existential crisis. Half of my  DNA places me firmly in Eastern Europe for many, many generations. Not a single solitary strand places me anywhere in the Middle East. Yet, here I am, owner of a passport granted by The Right of Return to a country to which I had zero connection. Not religiously. Not culturally. Not historically. Not genetically. The tattered fabric, the loose threads, the strands of DNA cross all boundaries.  I exist independently of any of those influences. I exist. Not an ephemeral shadow lurking as a faded memory in someone’s dining room.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, in conversation with my cousin, we have decided that it is long past time that WE should return to the old family homestead. We are making plans to go to Zigeurnawald and the Bloch Family Restaurant - which still stands appears to still operate as a restaurant. We will go in April. I will keep you posted.